The airspace is rumbling, and it’s not from the usual summertime convective activity. From Papua New Guinea to Iceland, increased seismic activity reminds us volcanos are a “popup” issue that can have an impact on air traffic. However, authorities are more prepared than ever to understand and minimize their impact. Recognizing the effects of volcanic ash (VA) on air travel, institutions, such as NASA, have spent a good deal of time studying and attempting to predict the movement of VA. Their ultimate goal is to forecast dispersion, so that air service navigation providers and airlines are better positioned to handle air traffic flow management in an effected area.
The aviation impact of volcanic eruptions
Since volcanos occur very rarely, it’s easy to put off thinking about their impact. But the 2010 activity in Iceland reminds us how important it is to learn and maintain lessons from prior events.
Volcanic ash (VA) can damage aircraft in several ways: windshield crazing, plugging of sensors, and contamination of hydraulic systems. When ingested into a jet engine, volcanic particulate matter forms glassy deposits. Fortunately, like exposure of our skin to ultraviolet rays, the effects of aircraft exposure to volcanic ash are cumulative: longer or more intense exposure leads to more damage. The good news is this allows us the opportunity to prevent exposure.
Ideally, aircraft should stay well clear of VA. But it’s hard to stay clear of something when you don’t know where it is or in which direction it is moving. Therein lies the rub. VA can have huge impact on aviation even without a single aircraft encounter. The Eyjafjallajokull eruption in 2010 caused a large closure of airspace, which from a safety standpoint, this was a huge success. However, it came with a huge price tag: 100,000 flight cancellations and a $2.6 billion cost to the airlines. In hindsight, the massive closure of the airspace was an overreaction. Not knowing precisely where the VA was, and more importantly for aircraft rerouting, where it will be, forced European authorities to close far more airspace than some considered necessary.
Incorporating lessons learned from 2010
Air navigation service providers, airlines, and weather service providers are better prepared now than they were in 2010. The FAA emergency response committee at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC) and the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) anticipate all types of disruptive events.
But one of the key drivers to informed decision making is the flow of accurate and timely information. Without this, airlines and air navigation communities are forced to add huge buffers to their reroutes around the VA clouds. Since aircraft routes have to be planned hours (sometime days) in advance, it’s not just a question of where the VA is, but where it will be in the future. Short and medium-range forecasts of volcanic ash movement are vitally important. One of the big takeaways from the 2010 eruption is that airlines should be provided greater degrees of freedom in determining their rerouting strategies, as opposed to applying a one-size-fits-all solution. While the ultimate decisions about flight safety rest in the hands of the operator, there is a collective responsibility among all stakeholders, including ANSPs, airports, and even travelers, to ensure that safety trumps all other considerations.
Better tracking and forecasting
The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, USGS, NOAA, Metron Aviation, and other partner organizations have ongoing research to fully utilize and disseminate satellite SO2 and ash volcanic data and model forecasts to improve Decision Support System (DSS) for early warning. VA Advisories are provided by VA Advisory Centers (VAACs). VAACs rely on 24/7 manual analyses of multiple data sources including real–time satellite geostationary imagery, ancillary information (e.g., pilot reports) and free-running ash dispersion forecasts. The manual analyses can be augmented with automatic tools to produce more accurate VA advisories. As a result of NASA research, next generation VA decision support tools will provide more dynamic, continuous update forecasts of 4D ash and SO2 concentrations, refined by satellite observations, which will lead to greater accuracy and spatial/temporal resolution than we have today.
Metron Aviation assists NASA by ensuring that the improvements are incorporated in existing or future decision support tools. Metron Aviation’s experience in developing ATM DSS (Decision Support Systems) for use by the FAA, airlines and other key players will be used to help shape the effectiveness of the NASA research. This will ensure that they are relevant and more readily transitioned into operational use.
The next step will be for aviation stakeholders to embrace the new technologies and determine how they can best apply them. Common situational awareness will be key; best practices from the collaborative decision making movement in traffic flow management should be generously applied.
Working toward the Future
The good news is we know where the active regions are and our knowledge of dispersion today leaves better-equipped to respond to volcanic action globally than ever before. Though, precise geological forecasting of the timing and magnitude of volcanic eruptions is a long way off, our continued research will position us to handle these “popup” problems as they occur.